A few years ago – and I wish I could find the link, but you’re going to have to trust me – Cliff Bleszinski (formerly of Epic Games and designer of Gears Of War) said that The Next Big Thing would be usable Virtual Reality headsets. He was emphatic, but is also known to be so, leading to his claim being categorised with so many other wild predictions from industry professionals.
Except now it doesn’t sound so wild.
Over the last year, there’s been vocal and growing support for the VR headset Oculus Rift and now, with Facebook’s $2bn acquisition of the company, the VR dream suddenly seems very real. There really feels like a shift is coming, similar to how mobile took over a few years ago, but this time with even more promise for hardcore games. Let’s look at the signs from each of the major players:
Facebook – Oculus Rift
$2bn may sound like a fortune, but to Facebook, it’s a more mundane sum. They’ve bought into the promise of how the Rift can bring people together, from meetings with doctors to ringside seats at sporting events. However, their buying of the hottest thing in gaming has put many noses out of joint, not helped by a financial call suggesting that it’s going to be used as “a network where people can communicate and buy virtual goods” or the rumour that it’ll carry the Facebook brand logo and interface. Of course, Facebook has assuaged these fears by insisting that it’ll continue on its course independently inside the company (a similar claim they made with Instagram) so we’ll just have to cross our fingers and wait.
Sony – PlayStation 4’s Project Morpheus
Announced this week at GDC, Project Morpheus is Sony reading the wave of interest generated by Oculus Rift and wanting to get into the game early. By all accounts, they could have a winner on their hands – early reports have been overwhelmingly positive, with resolution and latency outdoing the Rift. Sony have also been very quick to affirm that it will be a fully-supported gaming device that’ll have titles written especially for it, and with gamers feeling burnt by Oculus’ buyout, their timing could not have been any more perfect. It’s due out some time next year, and will be mine. Oh yes.
Microsoft – Some Kind of Augmented Reality
It also emerged this week that Microsoft had finally closed a deal with tech company Osterhout Design Group to buy the rights to all their patented wearable computers. Microsoft have been throwing around the idea of augmented reality for a while, with projectors and Kinect expanding playable areas, but this is the first definite sign that they may be pushing a new tech angle. What’s interesting about this is that it’s a different play from Oculus and Sony, with augmented reality adding to real life instead of virtual reality completely replacing it. How this will impact games is anyone’s guess, but it could be external visual effects or heads-up-displays. However, if Microsoft do go down this route, then they will have a direct competitor. A big one.
Google – Google Glass
This is much more of a known entity than the other selections as there’s been test models in the wild for a while. However, there`s still a sheen of mystery about the product (vital for creating that Apple-esque WOW factor), but what we do know is that its camera can give you updated information relating to what you’re looking at. It’s fair to say that Google’s device will be less game-centric than Microsoft’s, but that passive dominance (where it becomes a natural part of daily life) is sure to harm any competitors.
True Player Gear, a start-up from Montreal, has been showing off their Rift alternative, a headset that can not only display a VR surrounding but, thanks to its twin 1080p cameras, can also be used for augmented reality. It sounds too good to be true, and with the massive engineering challenges in creating this kind of device, we’ll just have to wait and see how the finished product handles. Also, it looks like a little Pixar robot, which is nice.
And finally, never, ever rule out Nintendo. The WiiU, even with its great features and games, has been a total failure up to this point. Many think that they’ve deep in the planning stages for their next console that might link their handheld and TV box together, and Nintendo have always been a company who want to push a new angle. Wii Sports showed how to get motion control right, and this expertise could translate to another VR competitor down the line.